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How to mix and match Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and the rest of the Bulls frontcourt

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Should the Bulls bigs be split up?

Who would you start in the frontcourt?
Who would you start in the frontcourt?
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

[Thanks to Will for today's post -yfbb]

Obviously, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol struggled starting together last year. The big-man tandem had their moments, but overall it was one of the great failures of the 2014-2015 Bulls.

The defensive disaster began with Pau’s immobility forcing Joakim to play defensive power forward. While Pau was camped in the lane waiting to block shots, Joakim chased stretch-fours around the perimeter, but was too banged up to pick up the slack the way he had the previous season. Offensively, Joakim was simply a liability. He didn’t finish the way he has in the past and his passing wasn’t as prolific, which allowed defenses to play off of him and defend the more dangerous threats.

Then, Bulls.com writer Sam Smith wrote an article about the possibility of Coach Fred Hoiberg bringing either Joakim Noah or Pau Gasol off the bench. But before splitting them up, let's dig into the numbers from last season and examine whether or not the duo should be separated.

Rebounding

Being that this discussion is in regards to big men, measuring rebounding stats seemed like a sensible place to commence. Using basketball-reference.com to compare rebounding percentage data to the other big-men tandems, the numbers verify Gasol and Noah’s poor rebounding. They had trouble on the offensive glass, averaging the fourth in ORB% and fifth in Opp ORB% out of the six combinations. Overall total rebounding was also not ideal, they averaged the fifth highest TRB% and Opp TRB%. Defensive rebounding was slightly better for Gasol and Noah, who averaged the second highest DRB% of the six possible pairs, but they unfortunately gave up the second highest DRB% behind only the Mirotic-Gasol pair (but it would have been reasonable to assume those two finished last).

Scoring and Pace

Basketball is a game of points, and as Tom Thibodeau is probably still barking: "SCORE, STOP, SCORE!". In Points per 100 possessions - Offensive Efficiency - and points allowed per 100 possessions - Defensive Efficiency - Gasol and Noah ranked fourth and third respectively. They were also tied for 4th with a net difference of 3.1 in points per 100 possessions. This combination was right around the average for possible Bulls lineups, which is not quite ideal from the starting frontcourt.

Although Pau was in each of the top three lineups in pace, he was the beneficiary of quick post-ups - according to NBA.com, 74.8% of Gasol’s shots came in the first 17 seconds (considered very early to average) of the shot clock - which increased the pace of lineups in which he played, and subsequently, the amount of possessions in the game. While this increases the pace statistic, the nuance here is that quick shots does not necessarily mean quick offense.

These early post-ups help the Bulls get shots up quickly, but they come against set defenses. In Hoiberg’s offense, he will try to attack the defense in transition, before they have a chance to set up, doing so by using the foundational tenets of the dribble-pitch weave or drag screen-roll/pop.

Was it Pau or injuries that contributed to Joakim’s demise last year?

Did everyone forget just how good Joakim was when he was healthy? Certaintly, the Bulls can’t and shouldn’t rely on health, but I can’t believe how quickly we forget. 365 days ago, he was the Defensive Player of the Year and #4 on the MVP ladder. It would be foolish to assume last year’s regression was permanent. Even this past year, his Defensive Box Plus-Minus remained top seven in the league. The Bulls need him (to be better) and next season, he will be. He may or may not ever return to his 2013-2014 season level of play, but he is motivated to prove his worth this season.

But last season was a completely different story. NBA.com’s SportsVU data shows Joakim defended shots that came from less than 10 feet only 48.1% of the time in 2014-15 compared to 52.3% in the previous year. He also defended shots that came from greater than 15 feet 46.4% of the time last season versus 38.5% in his Defensive Player of the Year campaign. Pau was patrolling the paint much more this season (49.6% shots defended within 10 feet, 39.9% greater than 15), and that forced Joakim towards the perimeter where he is much less effective - his defensive efficiency was 102 points/100 possessions this year compared to 96 last year - as a result of his health, but also perhaps his lack of experience guarding power forwards on the perimeter.

Another example of Joakim’s regression last year based on his defensive position was his inability to protect the rim. In this comparison from Seth Partnow’s Rim Protection stats we see a dip in his contest percentage, rim field goal percentage and points saved per game and 36 minutes from the previous year.

Player, Season

MPG

Contest %

Rim FG% Allowed

Points Saved/GM

Points Saved/36

Joakim Noah ‘15

30.5

34.4%

51.7%

-1.11

-1.31

Joakim Noah ‘14

35.4

40.6%

47.2%

-0.37

-0.37

Despite Pau’s representation as the starting power forward, he was the true center, and it forced Joakim to adjust. Considering the explosion of small ball and the stretch 4 this year, that became impossible to cover. Small ball was instituted to take advantage of slower, traditional big men, by moving them away from their home base. Injury, new position and front-court mate compounded to make defense a challenge. Defenses were obviously able to take advantage of Joakim, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to adjust in the future.

That said, parsing the effect that Pau and his injuries had on him would be too difficult, but Joakim was clearly not himself last season. He had knee surgery last offseason, and dealt with several nagging injuries to his knees and ankles throughout the season. Being the competitor he is, he did his best to play through them, but was prevented from gelling with Pau and finding his groove defensively. The fact is, the two compounded to make life tough for Jo, but that alone is reason to be hopeful for next year.

The Hoiberg Effect

Much has been made of Hoiberg’s mastermind x’s and o’s and imaginative offensive schemes, but the defense has largely been neglected in the Hoiball hype. Though Gibson and Noah will probably not play together very much (and this is for the better, refer to the Pts/100 poss stats), the type of defensive team Hoiberg wants to be remains unclear, and that further clouds any speculation of the big-man rotations he intends to use.

That said, Hoiberg is expected to manage minutes more evenly all around, so Gibson, Mirotic and even Bobby Portis (God, I haven’t even mentioned him) will be playing a lot more. Likely, he will use Gibson-Gasol and Mirotic-Noah lineups to balance offense and defense and allow Noah and Gasol to maximize their skillsets playing center, next to true power forwards.

Noah and Mirotic will probably fit well into the speed and transition aspects of ‘Hoiball’ system because of they will be able to spread the floor with their ability to run the floor, and make plays, not to mention Niko’s shooting. This also means Pau and Taj will most likely play a lot together as well, with either of them on the block, and using Pau on PNRs/PNPs in the halfcourt sets. Gasol remains an elite interior-passing big, and offensive versatility allow him to back down in the low post, or set up at the pinch post and shoot or serve up oops to Taj down low. While this would be a slower one, the offensive and defensive fit seems to work.

Even though the numbers were painstaking (and you can see them all here), I simply cannot fathom a world in which either Gasol or Noah come off the bench. It just seems unrealistic. Unless Noah remains a hobbled moult of himself, the two will probably start together. While dreams of Pau annihilating bench units , or Joakim embracing the Andre Iguodala bench role may be alluring, the upside of starting them together may be too high. If it doesn’t work, Hoiberg can always pull one first, and stagger their minutes so they don’t play together as much, or bench one mid-season. But with Pau’s shooting, their interior passing and combined with Joakim’s ability to put the ball on the floor to make plays, the two will fit much better together, especially in Hoiberg’s system.